Having come to Australia in 1988 I am what some refer to as a “new Australian”. As such, unlike most of my Australian readers, I can claim no relatives and ancestors who served in our armed forces, fought in any of Australia’s wars, or died in combat. On the flip side, I don’t have any relatives and ancestors who fought against Australia, but even if I did, I would not allow my present to be the slave to the past. Yet despite the lack of a personal connection, ANZAC Day still appeals to me. Australia is now my home and its history is now my history. But much more importantly than that, for all its association with a particular episode of Australian history, ANZAC Day touches on universal human experience.
My grandparents and great-grandparents fought in the First and the Second World Wars, and no doubt their grandparents shed blood in other conflicts past. Just about everyone on Earth can point to someone in their family tree who had served, fought and suffered. Conflict has sadly been a part of our history from before we even learned to write about it. Wars have touched us all, even in their own ways the lucky neutrals like Sweden and Switzerland.
ANZAC Day is special for it commemorates a military defeat. In this, it forces us to focus not on an ambiguous martial glory or on the joy – or relief – of a righteous victory, but on the deeply human dimension of war: service, comradeship – or mateship – pain, death, loss, mourning.
There are those who disparage ANZAC Day as some sort of a jingoistic festival of war, celebrating the male propensity for organised violence. I’m not sure whether these people ever descend down from their ivory towers, where many of them reside, to dirty their feet among the common people in the real world, because no one who has ever participated in any ANZAC Day commemorations can seriously claim there is any rejoicing in past wars and longing for new ones. The tone is a serious and somber one, as befits the remembrance of the incalculable and irreplaceable human losses of war. We remember the fallen and we remember those who were left behind to mourn. We thank all who served for we live in a fallen world where wars are always with us, if thankfully less frequently than in the past, instead of a parallel universe where Australia is a pacifist, socialist, Antipodean utopia refusing to fight “other people’s wars”. Such desires a deeply ahistorical and unrealistic.
The universality of human emotions stirred by ANZAC Day commemorations and remembrances gives lie to another, related set of critics who claim that the Day is not inclusive and nor reflecting of our new multicultural society, where so many Australians are first or second generation migrants. Such critics would love nothing more dearly than to strip all of our traditional holidays of any historical context and cultural distinctiveness so as not to “offend” or “exclude” anyone, particularly migrants from other backgrounds. If they had their way we probably would be left only with Mothers’ Day, Labour Day and Harmony Day.
Five years ago, Tim Soutphommasane, then a Monash academic and not yet a member of the Australian Human Rights Commission, mused in The Sydney Morning Herald about his migrant youth:
As a first-generation Australian who was born overseas, bearing Chinese and Lao heritage, I once struggled to see how Anzac Day could have meaning for me. During my teenage years I found myself at a loss when others at school spoke about the sacrifice made by ”our forebears” in defending ”an Australian way of life”.
This wasn’t something to which I could relate. I didn’t have a grandfather or great-grandfather who served at Gallipoli or on the Western Front. I knew enough to know that the Australia that Diggers fought to defend was one that would have excluded my forebears under the White Australia policy.
Our education system and multiculti milieu arguably have a lot to answer for in installing, or at least not correcting, such myopic cultural vision that focuses on differences – making people like Tim ask “what’s in it for me” in ANZAC Day or any other part of our culture, history and identity – instead on common values, experiences and emotions that bring us together and unite us.
This approach is so wrong on so many levels, let me just point out that migration to Australia is a privilege, not a right, and migrants should be expected to assimilate to Australia, not Australia to migrants. We wouldn’t dream of going to any other country – China, India, Russia, Egypt, Ghana, Paraguay – or Poland – and expecting them to change their national days because they don’t appeal to us. In any case, as I argued above, you don’t need to have had a great-granduncle who perished at Gallipoli to understand the meaning of today and its relevance for everyone, no matter what their ethnic or cultural background.
Once you leave the historical particulars behind, the story of ANZACs is a universal one, and its commemoration has an equally universal appeal, for we all human, and we all experience suffering and loss, we all mourn and remember, we all have bloody history and we all pray for a more peaceful future. A fifth generation Aussie or a first generation Australian from Poland, we are all ANZACs, their loved ones, friends and neighbours.